Political theater of the absurd

When members of the House voted Tuesday to rebuke South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson for the insult he shouted at President Obama during his address last week, they may have thought they were drawing a line that would halt the spread of the town hall/tea party ethos across the country.

Think again. The fact is that the right-wing anti-Obama movement in the U.S. these days is overpopulated with nuts, fundamentalists and paranoids who won’t be easily stopped by a few congressional reprimands.

Wilson, for example, isn’t just a loudmouth with impulse-control issues. He’s one of those Southern lawmakers with links to the sinister neo-Confederate movement and, as a state legislator, was one of the die-hards who opposed removing the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina statehouse. He’s also an unrepentant supporter of Obama’s extreme critics. When he spoke on the House floor Monday, Wilson praised the “patriots” who turned the town halls into shouting matches and the tea party demonstrators who gathered in Washington last weekend to oppose “a government takeover” of healthcare. (Among the 179 representatives who voted against rebuking Wilson -- and circulated a letter on his behalf -- was Iowa’s Steve King, who recently alleged that Obama was excluding “white men” from his initiatives.)

Meanwhile, the tea party spokesman, former radio talk show host Mark Williams -- what else could he be? -- was on CNN Monday and was asked by anchor Anderson Cooper about his personal blog in which Obama is described as “an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and racist in chief.” Is that really what Williams thinks of the president, an incredulous Cooper asked. “He’s certainly acting like it,” Williams replied. “Until he embraces the whole country, what else can I conclude?”

Williams rather grandiloquently portrays himself as a kind of unlikely David battling an amorphous Goliath. The truth, however, is more prosaic because the tea parties are a grass-roots movement only in the sense familiar to those who know their way around California politics, where this whole thing began: The seed money and advice have come from a political action committee headquartered here and called Our Country Deserves Better. It’s actually the successor to a PAC formed to defeat Obama in the general election. Williams was hired to work for the original PAC and then moved on to where the next job was.


The operators of Our Country Deserves Better also will be familiar to Californians because they’re longtime activists on the state GOP’s extreme right flank. One is former assemblyman and unsuccessful congressional candidate Howard Kaloogian, whose one notable success was as chairman of the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis; another is political strategist Sal Russo, who once worked for Ronald Reagan.

During his appearance on CNN Monday, Williams told Cooper that the movement Kaloogian and Russo got going isn’t really about healthcare reform. That, he said, is “just a metaphor.” The real purpose is to stop the slide into socialism, whose “seeds” -- according to Williams -- were planted under President George W. Bush and are being “nourished by Obama.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

But of all the odd ideological ducks that have been drawn into this anti-Obama parade, perhaps none are stranger or more deluded than the so-called 10thers. These are people who believe that President Franklin Roosevelt used panic during the Depression to stage an executive/judicial coup to overthrow “the true Constitution.”

That document, whose restoration the 10thers seek, would rely on a kind of fundamentalist reading of the 10th Amendment, which says that powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states. Advocates of this ahistorical and legally unintelligible reading believe it will restore “sovereignty to the states.” Adherents believe that any healthcare reform is unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment, and currently they are trying to persuade state legislators across the country to pass resolutions saying their states will reject any bill Obama signs.

A website devoted to providing 10thers with scholarly resources includes articles asserting that Sen. John C. Calhoun was right in the great nullification controversy that proceeded the Civil War and that -- I kid you not -- the landmark 1803 Supreme Court ruling in Marbury vs. Madison was wrong because state legislatures, not the Supreme Court, are the ultimate arbiters of constitutional legitimacy. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a 10ther, goes so far as to say that Social Security and Medicare “probably are unconstitutional.”

If the GOP’s remaining sober elders don’t find a way to intervene in all this, anyone familiar with California politics can see where it’s going.